Derby Theatre Studio, Derby, Saturday 18th July, 2015
The studio at Derby Theatre is set out for a spot of in-the-round. We sit behind tables on chairs and stools – it’s like pub theatre and there is even a bar in one corner. While we take our seats, a young woman in a ‘Tank Girl’ tee-shirt and black shorts is pacing around, murmuring, “She’ll be here in a minute.”
This is Joan. Of Joan of Ark fame. When the houselights go down, she takes centre-stage to tell us her story. It’s down-to-earth stuff and very funny, like a Northern comic, like Paul Shane. Joan is mannish and behaves oddly for a girl in thirteenth century France. She doesn’t conform to gender expectations, although she gives it a good go, enlisting a man from the front row to be a potential suitor. There’s a lot of this: direct audience address, speaking to individuals, borrowing a jacket, asking questions, but so engaging is the performance, irresistible in its insistence, that we stop feeling on edge and go with it. When it comes to full-on audience participation for a battle scene, we do our best, with only a little cajoling.
This version of Joan’s biography is enormous fun and a great laugh but it also engages our emotions with its lyrical passages: Joan’s visions of Saint Catherine, for example. And then we’re off again with a contrasting change of pace: writer/director Lucy J Skilbeck keeps the laughs coming, the story moving, and the writing beautiful in a blistering first play.
It’s a one-woman show, a tour de force (your actual French) performance from Lucy Jane Parkinson, whose energy is infectious and her ad libs quick-fire and sharp. Before our very eyes she transforms herself into key male figures from Joan’s life, and each successive transformation is more elaborate, more startling. Parkinson is an award-winning drag king – and you can easily see why. There are songs, cabaret-style, humorous and catchy – until Joan’s final torch song (pun intended) touches the heart. Joshua Pharo’s lighting and David Lewington’s subtle sound design take us from the pub setting and into a France of our imagination but it’s Parkinson who commands our attention.
It’s an exhilarating, captivating show as much about humanity and gender restrictions (still prevalent today) as it is a history lesson. Joan may go to the stake but Lucy Jane Parkinson sets the world on fire.